Now more than ever, we must speak up for teachers

American public education remains front and center, which is mostly good news.  Let me start this ‘news summary’ in Washington, DC, where President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are calling for fundamental changes in the law known as No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration’s version of Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

No Child Left Behind

I doubt you could find more than a handful of educators who like NCLB these days, but whether anyone in the nation’s capital will be able to agree on what a new version should call for is highly questionable.

To recap the law’s flaws would take a long time; Learning Matters produced an award-winning series on it a few years ago, which you can see here. In my view, the best thing about NCLB was its insistence on ‘disaggregating’ data so that high scores from one group can no longer mask low performance by other groups. I also admire one phrase from the run-up to the law, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

But the law’s many loopholes allow and encourage districts, schools and individual teachers to cheat. It says that everyone has to be proficient by 2014 but lets states decide what constitutes proficiency. This is an invitation to deceive if ever there was one.

It produced what has famously been called “A Race to the Bottom,” which is, of course, why the Obama Administration created its “Race to the Top.”  (For more about cheating, see this brilliant reporting by Greg Toppo and others, supported by the Hechinger Institute.)

So stay tuned for the debate, but given the intense partisanship in Washington, I would bet against anything passing soon.  We may need some dramatic event — such as some school districts simply refusing to subject their students to even more bubble tests.

The Value — And Influence — Of Teaching

“We need to make teaching a better job” — that’s one of the central points of my new book, The Influence of Teachers, and so you can imagine how pleased I am by the new report from Andreas Schleicher of OECD that argues that the United States must raise the status of teachers.  That report comes on the occasion of a meeting in New York of education ministers and union leaders from 16 countries, and that two-day gathering will be followed by WNET’s “Celebration of Teaching and Learning.” An earlier report from OECD and PISA is here.

(Related: I hope to attend lots of sessions at WNET’s “Celebration of Teaching and Learning” and will be blogging from there in the near future.)

While President Obama is urging greater respect for teachers, the attack on the profession grows more intense.  Politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and elsewhere regularly trash teachers, labeling them as greedy, overpaid and lazy.  Fox News is, no surprise, filling its air with attacks. In response, Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” has simply been brilliant, skewering the hypocrisy of Fox and the politicians.

Of course, this is not a laughing matter.  Who can calculate the damage being done to an honorable profession?  Who benefits from this trashing?  How many prospective teachers are now deciding on different careers because of what they are reading and hearing every day?

If ever there were a time to speak up for teachers, it’s now.  As I argue in my book, the definition of ‘better job’ is problematic, because of the power of unions and the stupidity of some school boards, but now’s the time to get involved.

Let Kids Rule The School?

Earlier this week the New York Times carried a fascinating op-ed by Susan Engel about eight high school students, ages 15-17, in western Massachusetts who essentially took charge of their own education.  “Let Kids Rule the School” is buzzing around the internet, but in case you missed it, find it here. Is this approach ‘scalable,’ to use the official jargon?  I don’t know, but it’s a step in the right direction, away from the useless ‘regurgitation education’ that I write about in The Influence of Teachers.  Someone on Twitter called it ‘home schooling guided by teachers,’ but the essential point is that adults trusted kids to take their own education seriously — and allowed and encouraged them to pursue their own interests.

Two Education Books Of Note

One corner of my desk is filling up with education books, and I doubt I will ever get to review even half of them.  But two in particular have proved valuable to me in my reporting and my thinking.  Neither David Kirp nor Ellen Galinsky needs my endorsement because both authors have large fan bases, and deservedly so, but I would like to call your attention to Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives, which is David Kirp’s new book, and Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky’s valuable analysis of “The Seven Essential Life Skills that Every Child Needs.”  (And we have used one of David’s earlier books, The Sandbox Investment, in our research for an upcoming NewsHour piece about early education.)

I appreciate that some of you have posted reviews of The Influence of Teachers on its Amazon page.  The book has been reviewed favorably in a number of places, as well as being the subject of a photo spread about a wonderful book party that took place last week in New York City. Lots of bold-face names attended, drawn no doubt by the bold face names who hosted the event: Joel Klein, Dick Beattie and Mary Lou and Joe Quinlan.


11 thoughts on “Now more than ever, we must speak up for teachers

  1. John,

    The recently observed factoid that Chicago PS children get FOUR years less class time than those in the Houston schools was absolutely criminal. Reading subsequently about the charter schools (in Chicago and elsewhere), I wondered if it is the case that they get more time in school? As much as Houston?


    Tom Jester ’63

    PS It won’t be as far from the big village to Hanover for reunion as it was from the coast. I hope you’re planning on it and will gin up some kind of imposition on your good graces as we move forward in planning.


    • Tom
      I suspect the comparison is between regular Chicago PS and KIPP schools (also public) in Houston. KIPP has extended day and extended year, uniforms, sensible discipline policies, and contracts with parents. While all that KIPP does may not be replicable, we would be a lot better off if more regular schools adopted at least some of KIPP’s approach.

      On a side note, I am looking for to our reunion. It’s our 100th, right?


  2. A few thoughts, John:

    1. While teaching can always be made a better job, teachers need to realize that even the best teacher can do a better job. As with all professions and careers, self-assessing and formative assessing along with the associated analysis MUST be done by teachers on a continuous basis. THEN, following up, they need to refine approaches to help address areas of need. All too often, people would seem to indicate that they are NOT in need of change, pointing fingers at others. Whether this is simply perception or is actually true doesn’t matter. We ALL need to be alert for opportunities to improve.

    2. Union bashing is happening for sure. But again, it’s not in some ways unwarranted. When unions themselves engage in finger-pointing and refuse to acknowledge needs for change [e.g. promoting the perception – at least, if not belief – that they don’t believe there are teachers who should not having teaching jobs], they only encourage the movements against teaching.

    3. The Susan Engel article in the NYT should be required reading for all teachers and for all administrators. As I noted in a comment associated with the article, to me it’s very much “home schooling with teachers / staff instead of parents.” If the parents get involved as well in providing the environment at home that also promoted the intrinsic motivation for effective learning, then the student learner has the best of all worlds. Beyond that, if we brought in the best of online learning, the overall hybrid system I believe should be the model for the future.

    Bottom line: Education is not as bad as it’s often portrayed. BUT there are better ways to facilitate learning and any even perception of reluctance on those involved only encourage extreme efforts.


    • John
      I should have realized that I was quoting you. You are a wise man, and I appreciate your taking the time to comment here. I agree that even our very good teachers can get better, but it’s up to us to make sure they have the opportunity and the tools.
      President Obama talks about teachers as ‘nation builders’, referencing South Korea. Our teachers can be nation builders as well, but we have to make sure that they have the building materials and the construction equipment. And we need blueprints, because we don’t want each teacher building a kitchen–we only need one kitchen per house. (I feel next week’s blog coming on)


  3. John:

    Should we be pushing hard for changes to NCLB? Of course. But until (and even after) those changes occur, we as educators must focus on what we have control over. And as off target as NCLB has been, the prevailing response to it in schools has been equally amiss.

    At the Education Writers Association conference on teacher quality I attended last month, ASCD Chief Program Development Officer Judy Zimny shared that, in her experience–including 14 years as a principal in Dallas–test scores automatically go up when schools provide engaging, high-quality instruction. And my experience bears this out. Many schools, however, continue to teach the test rather than provide teachers rich curriculum and the support they need to effectively deliver it. (See my Ed Week blog for more on this:

    Speaking of giving teachers the support they need (and deserve!), is there any profession where key performers are less set up for success than teaching?! Yet rather than provide teachers the practical, cost-effective support we know they’ll benefit from most, schools continue to rely more on cookie-cutter workshops than contextual coaching.

    It’s not so much that we need to speak up for teachers outside the profession as we need to support them within it.


  4. We are on the same page, but I would like to know more about “the practical, cost-effective support we know they’ll benefit from.” Specifically, what do you mean?


    • In a word, coaching:

      Joyce and Showers found that 90% of learners implement new ideas with fidelity when training includes job-embedded coaching as opposed to only 5-25% when training is limited to workshops, modeling, etc.

      And education economist Eric Hanushek found instructional coaching to be more cost-effective than class-size reduction when it comes to improving student achievement.

      But research aside, most compelling for me is the immediate–and, getting back to cost-effectiveness, LASTING–impact I’ve seen coaching have on teaching and learning the past 12 years. A few examples:


  5. Dear John,

    I just finished your book, The Influence of Teachers and loved it. I will be sharing it (and perhaps requiring it) for the students in our M.Ed. and M.A. programs in humane education, which aims to graduate a generation of solutionaries for a more just, restorative, and healthy world for all. I wanted to share my TEDx talk, The World Becomes What You Teach, with you, as it reflects some goals for education that you expressed in your book: At the Institute for Humane Education ( we work to expand the very purpose of schooling and to train educators to teach about pressing global challenges in ways that invite critical and creative thinking for positive change. Thanks for all you have done and continue to do. I’m now following your FB and Twitter feeds and have subscribed to your blog. Zoe Weil


  6. This blog & the responses have evoked many things in my mind. As someone who has someone near & dear who is completly involved in the areas discussed, I wanted to throw out a little input. I will respond in multiple messages, so as to not make one response too lengthy.

    Regarding NCLB:

    Whether you call it a Race to the Bottom or the Race to the Top, it is a race to the unreachable. Why? Because, by the very definition of “proficient”. If everyone is proficient, NOBODY is proficient. And usually if you were talking about proficiency, once you are over 50%, you would start to report in terms of percent DEficient.

    But besides that, let’s consider another factor: English Language Development (ELD). In my friend’s California district, ELD students are thrown into the same NCLB testing as their English counterparts. So, even if they “would be” profienct if the test was done in their own language, their barrier to proficiency may be lack of English understanding more than the academics of the particular subject being tested.

    Add to that: the tests generally require 40-50 minutes of continual testing, not taking anything into regard for the limits of attention span for the particular age group.

    Another factor is that it is all brought down to what a student does on one particular day. What is they are sick. What if their parents had a fight that morning…or an number of negative factors.

    So the whole evaluation of test results is really skewed by many factors that ought to be considered.



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